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The case for direct democracy, Switzerland-style


It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong’ – Thomas Sowell

Britain is now an elite dictatorship where majority opinions are crushed . . . How do we make Parliament more representative, and reduce the power of the Blob? One answer would be to use a lot more referenda, as the Swiss do; another would be radical reform of the Civil Service, turning ministers into CEOs with proper control over mandarins’ – Allister Heath, Daily Telegraph

‘We will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes, if it does. Advanced democracies are not overthrown, there are no tanks on the street, no sudden catastrophes, no brash dictators, or brain mobs, instead, their institutions are imperceptibly drained of everything that once made them democratic’ – Lord Jonathan Sumption

THERE is a palpable sense of frustration and anger in the electorate of many mature Western democracies, nowhere more so than the UK. Decades of broken manifesto pledges, votes ignored, targets unmet, policies introduced without consultation, public opinion flagrantly disregarded, have left the impression that we are living in a uni-party world which is a democracy in name only. Once elected, our entitled elites on both sides of the aisles forge on with activist policies and agendas which are often at complete odds with the people that they supposedly represent and to whom they owe their positions. It is unsurprising if a disempowered electorate are prepared to take matters into their own hands via civil disobedience and potential acts of violence. Before discontent turns to action, we should start to be forward-thinking and propose solutions to the limitations of our representative democratic model.

Perhaps it has been ever thus. However, a perfect storm of societal shifts, global alignment of the cognitive elite and technological changes mean that we find ourselves in uncharted territory where the systems we have relied on to date are no longer entirely satisfactory. The dividing line between right and left has been rendered almost meaningless, being replaced around a new axis of authoritarian vs non-authoritarian, woke vs anti-woke. Institutions which should stand as a balance against any overly political ideologies have been steadily captured by the same intellectual conformity that ensures the tyranny of the faceless ‘blob’. Academia, the judicial system, regulatory bodies and legacy media think and act as one. More alarmingly, as recent events have shown, these institutions are now being used to vilify, silence and destroy anyone whose message contradicts the official narrative.

Unable to generate societal consensus, governments have resorted to creating an almost permanent state of crisis to justify increased controls and surveillance, and bypass the democratic process. They create ‘external enemies’ to divert The People away from local issues. Extraordinary restrictions on our freedoms to speak, to associate, to dissent become justified on the basis that the immediate threat overrides medium- to long-term planning. If Covid was the awakening for many people to how these systems work, the ‘climate crisis’ is the most recent and pressing example of how any means are justified in order to ‘save the planet’. The solution must always be at a global level, obviating any need for local input and delegating even more powers to supra-national organisations such as the WEF, EU, WHO and UN.

It is becoming blatantly obvious that the pursuit of truth is no longer the lodestar around which many of our once independent institutions are ordered. There is simply too much evidence in the public sphere that our instinct that something is not quite right, and has been rotten for a long time, is spot-on. Once objective inquiry is replaced, a secular religion with its own shibboleths of ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance), DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) etc takes its place and the new priesthood of politicians and technocrats enact their wishes under the conviction that they, and they alone, are best placed to decide what is necessary ‘for the greater good’.

This moment is critical. Technologies are primed to impose unprecedented changes upon our societies, from surveillance cameras that can look through walls, facial recognition, permits for 415,000 low-level satellites that will ensure 24/7 surveillance, Central Bank Digital Currencies, digital IDs, Net Zero – the list goes on. All done without discussion and without consultation, and once implemented, impossible to reverse. These ideas seemed to belong to dystopian novels but the evocation of ‘emergency’, as seen during the reaction to Covid, shows how easily constitutions can be bypassed and frightening precedents set. Our democratic societies are being replaced by global totalitarianism run by a technocratic elite, based on propaganda that they control. Dissent will be impossible once it is in place.

It is clear that the UK’s system of representative democracy on its own is no longer fit for purpose in a world where technology and modern communications allows us to be tapped into the forefront of everything that is going on in the world, but with only a once-in-five-years window in which to express our views. Increasing numbers feel politically homeless, sandwiched between two political parties which are no better than ‘two cheeks of the same arse’.

Now is the time for bold and visionary leaders to propose a much-needed change. With a General Election a year away and cynicism and scepticism at an all-time high, the idea of a direct democracy is being mooted by journalists such as Allister Heath in the Telegraph and successful business people including Hugh Osmond who look at the success of Switzerland, one of the wealthiest, happiest and healthiest nations in the world, and wonder whether a government which is more regularly made accountable to its people, and is thereby more transparent in its working, might not be a template for a modern Britain. There is good precedent: the UK and its constituent countries have held 13 referendums since 1973. The more a democracy is direct, decentralised and devolved, and the more responsibility voters are given, the more responsibly they behave.

Switzerland successfully combines and integrates representative and direct democracy: no small feat. There are several mechanisms for calling a referendum. Citizens may petition to call for a change or to approve or reject a proposed law, plus there are mandatory votes on major decisions, such as to revise the constitution, join an international organisation or introduce emergency federal legislation for over a year. The system has an effect during the drafting phase of a law, as the Swiss politicians and civil servants know that if they don’t take the interests of the people into consideration, they will face a referendum. Additionally, in seven of the 26 Swiss cantons citizens can revoke and recall their elected authorities before the end of their elected period.

While the Swiss example is a tried and tested solution, the exact model that the UK should adopt will obviously have nuances adapted to the size and structure of our parliamentary system. There are naturally caveats, not least the requisite to limit the abuse of well-funded groups to advance their own agendas.

While no system is perfect, it is imperative if we are to maintain the benefits and privileges of our Western democracies that we explore ways to change the system to counterbalance major decisions where our elected representatives have deviated from the views and priorities of the citizenry. More regular referendums should be used to enhance national decision-making, understanding democratic will and ensure the accountability of our elected representatives. Yet here is the rub: it would have be introduced by existing decision-makers, and they are unlikely to support a system which would reduce and redistribute their power.

However greater citizen co-operation, participation and transparency could be a boon to governments who adopt such a system. Voters who are fully engaged and know that their referendum vote genuinely does count are happier to comply with laws that they have created themselves. In this way both society’s successes and failures can be credited to the people, rather than solely laid at the door of the government. That really would be democracy.

An appendix of references to recent writings on the history and practice of direct democracy has been compiled here.

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Neil Oliver
Neil Oliver
Neil Oliver is a writer and broadcaster.

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